Gender Roles in the Church
Passage: 1 Timothy 2:11-15
Last week we studied vv. 8–10 of this paragraph. I mentioned that we live in a day where it is mostly assumed that honoring women requires eliminating gender roles and downplaying the biological and psychological differences between men and women. The Bible agrees that honoring women is very important. Proverbs 31:10 says that a virtuous woman is worth an inestimable price; therefore the Bible opposes any idea that women are property or mere objects of self-serving pleasure. But contrary to the feminist, it does not teach that eliminating distinctions is the solution. Instead, the answer is to uphold the unique gifts that God has given women and to embrace the roles for men and women that are bound up in God’s perfect design. Therefore, we should not run from a passage like this or hide it under the covers. Instead, we should trust that God is wise and his way is perfect. And we should embrace what he has said as being for our good.
I began our study last week by noting two foundational truths for understanding this paragraph. First, the primary concern of this paragraph is the worship of the church. This paragraph has significance for all of life, but we can easily abuse it if we don’t read it understanding that Paul is primarily giving instruction for what we should do when the church gathers. The second foundational truth is that the foundation of this paragraph is God’s design in creation. Again, this is important because some people will argue that Paul’s instructions are no longer binding because they were only for a past time and culture. But vv. 13–14 don’t ground Paul’s instructions in cultural concerns but in God’s original, perfect design. Therefore, this paragraph is binding on us today. With that in mind, let’s consider the second challenge to women regarding their conduct in the assembly.
The Challenge: Women must submit to male leadership in the church (vv. 11–12).
It’s fair to assume that Paul gives these instructions because the women at Ephesus were not all doing this. Paul hints at the fact that the false teachers were having a heavy influence among women (5:14–15). They were encouraging women to abandon their responsibilities in the home and were even resisting the institution of marriage (4:3). We can assume that some of the women who were being influenced by the false teachers were pursuing positions of authority in the church and rejecting biblical order. In chapter 1, Paul said that all false teachers must be resisted, but now he adds that the church must also embrace God’s will for gender roles.
Paul begins and ends vv. 11–12 by commanding women to…
Learn in Silence (vv. 11, 12b).
The word “learn” indicates that the setting is the corporate teaching times of the church. Therefore, Paul is not saying women have to be silent all of the time, which is a good thing because asking women to be silent all of the time would be a pretty steep demand. Rather, Paul says that when the church gathers, and the Scriptures are being taught, women must learn in silence. I think it’s important to say right off the bat that Paul is not saying that women can’t ask a question or make a comment. Rather, the word translated silence describes a submissive, deferential, and modest spirit. It’s the same word that is translated as quiet in v. 2. There it speaks of a deferential manner that stays out of the spotlight. In a teaching context such as we have in vv. 11–12, the point is that a woman must defer to the teacher. It is not her place to usurp authority or to drive the teaching ministry of the church. The end of v. 11 confirms this reading. Paul clarifies what he means when he adds “all submission.” In a teaching context, this submission is to the man who is teaching. Paul is not telling Christian women to submit to every man, just those whom God has placed over them. To these men, they owe “ALL submission.” In other words, they should listen intently with a desire to learn, and they must suppress any desire to usurp their position. Godly women should be known in the church for a submissive spirit toward church leadership and teachers. I know that’s not always easy. Some of you have a lot of passion and a lot to say. But we must always trust the wisdom of God and obey his will, not the impulses of our hearts.
The reason for this command is found in the following command in v. 12.
Do not teach or exercise authority (v. 12a).
One way that egalitarians try to get around this text is to say that the verb “permit” indicates that Paul is giving his personal opinion rather than God’s timeless truth. But that is not the natural way to understand the verb. It is used elsewhere of authoritative decrees, and there is nothing in the context that would indicate Paul intends to communicate anything less than God’s authoritative truth. This is God’s will. Paul follows with two roles in the church that women must not fulfill. They are not to teach or exercise authority over a man. Taken together, most scholars believe that Paul is especially thinking of the pastoral office. Since pastors or elders are required to be gifted to teach and are called to rule in the church, v. 12 specifically forbids women from holding this office. The fact that this was Paul’s assumption is obvious in chapter 3, where he gives the qualifications for a pastor. Verse 2 says that a pastor must be the “husband of one wife,” and the entire section is in the masculine gender. There is no hint anywhere in the NT of women being pastors. You can potentially make a case that there were deaconesses, though the case is pretty weak, and 1 Timothy 3 also assumes male deacons. But even if deaconess was an office, it was not a ruling office, since the NT never describes deacons as a governing board. And so, there is no good reason to take this command as saying anything other than what it plainly states. Women are not to hold primary, authoritative roles in the church. As a subset of this authority, they are not to be the authoritative teachers in the church. When the NT describes teaching in the church, it typically refers to the spiritual gift of teaching and the authoritative proclamation of God’s truth by those who have this gift. Therefore, Paul is primarily thinking of teaching from the pastoral office or from others who have been recognized as having the gift of teaching. Again, those who teach publicly in the general assembly of the church must be men.
Verse 12 is primarily concerned with the office of pastor, but the qualifier “over a man” is very important because it extends the prohibition to any teaching or ruling context where men are present. On the flip side, this qualifier also implies that when men are not present, women are free to teach. In fact, they ought to teach. Titus 2 commands older, more mature women to teach younger women. Therefore, it is very appropriate for a woman to teach other women in a ladies meeting. It is also very appropriate for women to teach children. Second Timothy mentions a couple of times how Timothy’s mother and grandmother taught him the Scriptures as a child. That’s why we have a number of ladies that teach in our children’s ministries. I would even say that a woman can instruct a man in a private, one on one setting. Acts 18:26 says that Aquila and Priscilla met Apollos when he only understood the baptism of John and together they taught him the full gospel and its implications. Priscilla participated in the private discipleship of Apollos.
But again, this is very different from the public preaching and teaching ministry of the church. Therefore, Paul reiterates that they must “be in silence.” Of course, this does not mean that women cannot hold authoritative or teaching positions in secular contexts. God appointed Deborah to be a judge in Israel; therefore, women can hold political offices. The Scriptures never say that they cannot have authoritative positions in the workplace or that they cannot teach in a secular context. Men, there is no biblical justification for us to act as if all women are inherently below us and we have the right to boss them around. No, we should honor and respect them. But God has set up an order of authority in his two primary, sacred institutions. In the home and in the church, men are to lead and women are to submit to their leadership. Again, this is not popular in our day. There are all sorts of people who would brand this sermon as patriarchal and oppressive even though equal opportunity is not the same as equal value. But it doesn’t really matter what the world thinks. What matters is what God thinks. And we must always stand on his Word, trusting his will no matter how we are perceived and no matter what it may cost us.
Paul then follows with the reason why we must follow this structure.
The Reason: Gender roles were established in creation (vv. 13–14).
Again, the egalitarian wants to say that gender roles resulted from a broken culture and are not binding on us. But vv. 13–14 take the argument back to creation, so how does an egalitarian respond to these verses? One of their main arguments is that vv. 13–14 are providing an illustration of order, not an authoritative basis for order. But the grammar does not support this reading. The conjunction gar (translated as “for”) that begins v. 13 occurs 33 times in the PE, and 30 of these uses clearly express cause or reason. This usage also most naturally indicates cause. The other two uses are not illustrative. And so the best, most natural reading is to see vv. 13–14 as providing the authoritative basis for the instructions in vv. 11–12.
In light of that, v. 13 states that…
God’s intent in creation was for men to lead (v. 13).
Of course, this verse takes us back to the creation of man and woman on the 6th day of creation and the fact that God made Adam first. Now, we need to acknowledge that order of creation does not necessarily indicate authority. Otherwise, fish would have authority over land animals, and all animals would have authority over people. Rather, Paul is referencing all of Genesis 2 and how God very clearly established an authority structure in the creation of mankind. He made Adam first, and he gave him the responsibility to name the animals. And when he made Eve, he declared that she would be a helper to Adam who was suitable to him. In other words, she would complete him through her complementary strengths. God made them for each other. And then God formed Eve using one of Adam’s ribs illustrating her dependence on him. Folks, Genesis 2 is filled with significant statements intended to communicate the importance of gender and the distinct but complementary roles a man and woman fill in marriage. And Paul says here, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that these roles extend to God’s other primary institution, the church, just as they extended to OT worship. The priests had to be men, and similarly, pastors must be men because God established this order in creation.
It is very important then to emphasize that gender roles are not a product of the fall. This is particularly important to remember in marriage. Ladies, your submission to your husband is not the product of sin. Male headship is part of God’s perfect design, and we should embrace it as a good gift. Now, that doesn’t mean that sin has not resulted in abuses of male leadership. Many men have grossly abused their positions of power and their superior physical strength. These abuses are terribly wicked, and we ought to oppose all such abuses. But opposing abuses doesn’t require rejecting God’s perfect design. Men, God has called you to lead in your homes and in the church, so be the kind of godly leader that your family and this church needs. Ladies, God has called you to support, so do everything you can to uphold the men God has placed over you.
Verse 14 continues to give validation by noting that…
Adam and Eve’s disregard of God’s design led to the fall (v. 14).
This is a fascinating and difficult verse on several levels. Of course, it is referring back to Genesis 3 and to the occasion of the first human sin. There is an obvious contrast in the verse between Adam and Eve’s response to the lies of Satan. Genesis 3 tells us that Satan approached Eve. The text strongly indicates that Adam was with her, but Satan’s cunning began by encouraging Eve to take the lead over Adam. Sadly Eve took the bait, and Adam did not step up and lead like he should have. Satan proceeded called into question the command of God and the goodness of the command. Again, rather than Adam taking the lead in responding to Satan’s lies, he allowed Eve to carry the conversation. Satan did a masterful job of twisting the words of God and of planting doubt in Eve’s mind. And our text states that Eve was deceived. She bought Satan’s lies; however, Paul emphasizes the fact that Adam was not deceived. He was standing there the whole time, listening to the conversation. He saw through Satan’s guise, but he did not step up. He did not take the lead in the conversation, and he did not stop Eve from eating the fruit. And then he knowingly disobeyed the command of God and instead obeyed Eve and ate the fruit himself.
The tricky question with this verse is whether or not Paul implies something about the nature of men and women. Is Paul saying that men are naturally passive, and women are naturally gullible? Some would say that Paul’s only point is to say that Adam and Eve reversed roles, and that Paul is not implying anything about the nature of the genders. I’m sympathetic to that position because there are lots of men who are good leaders and lots of men who are very gullible. As well, there are lots of women who are gifted leaders with good heads. But the problem with making this verse purely about role reversals is that Paul emphasizes that Adam was not deceived, but Eve was. As well, Genesis 2 emphasizes the fact that the genders have different strengths intended to complement each other. I believe it is fair to say that God made women to be more gentle and compassionate than men. And while those characteristics are incredibly valuable, they can cloud judgment and make it more difficult to make hard decisions, such as recognizing the danger of a false teacher and removing him from the church. Now this does not always hold true. We are all broken by sin and so men are commonly not the leaders they should be, and women are commonly not very motherly. But as a general rule, mean are better gifted to lead, and Genesis 3, Adam was certainly more gifted to lead. Satan knew this, and so he attacked humanity at a point of weakness. He baited Adam and Eve into rejecting their God-given roles, and they fell into sin. Paul particularly emphasizes the consequence for Eve. She usurped Adam’s role and “fell into transgression.”
Paul’s point is to warn the women of the church not to make the same mistake as Eve. Ladies, don’t resist God’s design. Your role is not a bad thing that resulted from sin. No, gender roles resulted from God’s good and wise purpose. Rather than gender roles being the product of sin, they contributed to the entrance of sin. All of us need to trust the goodness of God’s plan and learn from the failures of Adam and Eve. Men, let’s never make the mistake of Adam and passively defer when we ought to lead at home or in the church. Ladies, rather than pushing for a different role, make it your mission to help your husband and the men of our church be the best leaders they can be.
Paul then concludes the paragraph with a word of hope to Christian women.
The Hope: God will preserve godly women (v. 15).
You are probably wondering what in the world I am going to do with this verse. It is a tricky one to handle, and scholars are very divided on how to understand it. The debate centers on how to understand two words—saved and childbearing. Regarding saved, does it refer to a physical salvation or to spiritual salvation? When most of us read this verse for the first time, we probably assume that Paul is talking about physical safety during childbirth. However, Paul never uses this verb anywhere else for physical safety. As well, many godly women have died in childbirth, and so it’s hard to see how this could be a promise of safety in childbirth. It’s best to take the verb as referring to some sort of spiritual salvation. But how does salvation relate to childbearing? Some have tried to answer this question by saying that Paul is thinking of the birth of Christ. After Adam and Eve sinned, God promised that their seed would bring salvation, and they believe v. 15 is referencing the birth of Messiah. This would give the verse a simple explanation, but it seems to read a lot into the verse. If Paul intended to reference the incarnation, he could have made it a lot clearer. It’s much more natural to see this as a reference to regular childbearing.
But then what does salvation have to do with childbearing? This passage is concerned with gender roles, and Paul mentions childbearing as representative of a woman’s role. And so the idea is this. Verse 14 shares the awful news that Eve and by implication all women fell into sin because of Eve’s failure. But all hope is not lost. God promises to save or you could say “preserve” Christian women through the difficult task of performing their duties such as childbearing and childrearing. This is assuming that they continue to manifest the fruits of faith, love, and holiness, with self-control. The end of the verse affirms Paul’s consistent teaching that true Christians will continue in the faith and will manifest the fruits of a changed heart. If someone fails in this regard, it’s an indication that they were never saved.
And so v. 15 is intended to give comfort and hope to women despite Eve’s fall. Being a woman is hard. I can’t imagine giving birth, and I’m exhausted after watching my boys for a couple of hours. Ladies, you have a weighty task, but God will be faithful and bring you to heaven, and so press forward. Rejoice the fact that God made you a woman and has given you a stewardship. And be faithful to do the things that God has called you to do. And then look forward to the day that God will bring you to heaven and reward all of your faithful service. The world likes to tell you that gender roles will hold you back. They are oppressive, and they will keep you from fulfilling your dreams. Don’t buy those lies because you have a hope that is far greater than a job or an accolade from men. Your hope is to hear your Savior say “Well done” and to enjoy his eternal reward. Nothing you could achieve in this life will ever match this hope.
All of us need to trust the goodness and wisdom of God’s design and embrace the role God has given us. We must reject the shortsighted lies of our culture and see God’s eternal good. And then we must live it. Ladies embrace how God made you, and use your gifts to serve him. Men, embrace your role as a spiritual leader. Be a man who is worthy to lead and then step up. Let’s be the men God wants us to be and that the women in our lives would want to follow.